It’s hard to know where young women’s empowerment begins and ends.
Take Patrice Robert’s recently released ‘Hold on Tight’ video. It attempts to show her as sexually commanding, her stilettos shaking the ground, her youthful body taking control of men’s minds whether awake or asleep.
The video highlights what kinds of language are available for young women, especially young Black women, trying to turn sexuality from a source of vulnerability to authority. It highlights, just as Carnival does par excellence, that there is no pure place for such resistance and assertion of young female selfhood.
Executive produced, edited and directed by Afro-Caribbean men, the video shows Patrice through the eyes of a white man’s wet dream, including his vision of her as first winer girl, then leopard, then native in a forest. We shouldn’t be naïve. Black women came to be seen as naturally hypersexual and animalistic because hundreds of years of slavery mixed White dominance with such desire. It’s unthinkable violence that made it normal and everyday.
This very fantasy justified slavery’s rape and pimping of African women, and the definition of them as less than equal, less morally respectable or civilized than White women, less valued for their minds than their bodies, and less concerned with their political and economic rights than their freedom to be promiscuous. Streaming such a fantasy 50 years after our independence says much about what Carnival’s possibilities for decolonization can and must continue to mean.
When Patrice broke onto airwaves, coming from the calypso arena, she spoke publicly about not wanting to have to expose her body more than she felt comfortable. In those first years, she sometimes even performed in long sleeves and tight three-quarter pants. I’ve watched this change because, almost inescapably, celebration of women’s sexiness defines soca on stage, on screen and on the streets, and increasingly such sexiness is about skin, bikinis, beads, and even high heels. There is validation and joy in it all, just as much as not fulfilling the right ideal can shake women’s confidence or break their career.
I’m not writing against sexiness, nor Patrice, but thinking about young Black women in the politics of Carnival and the Caribbean. How can they challenge sexual passivity and the tyranny of morality without giving greater life to exploitative or stereotypical images of themselves? How can Afro-Trinidadian young women use Carnival and soca to thoroughly trouble both male dominance and desire by playing with irony, parody and mimicry all at once in the ultimate bikini mas, a mas that takes historical dehumanisation and turns it into contemporary emancipation, meaning being able to move in your body and in control on your own terms?
The point isn’t to blame young women for their choices, but to understand how those came to be the choices available, and their implications. It is to challenge the myriad forms of violence amongst which all women carefully thread, or chip, wine and get away without a care. It is to turn the camera on men’s continuing power to determine how young Black women see and display themselves. It is to question how much feeling powerful can transform systemic inequalities.
Women’s empowerment in Carnival and the Caribbean visibly remains also a story of how colonially inherited racisms, sexisms and other isms still set the terms for femininity, sexuality and power in the twenty-first century. Is Patrice’s performance as a primitive playing a mas or is the animal her mask? Carnival muddies all kinds of politics and pleasures, inviting us to look twice at young Caribbean women’s realities and our gaze at their bodies.